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Heroes, Activists, and Martyrs: Lending their names to the streets of Tehran

January 24, 2013

Tehran_Streets

When I heard the story of Granada, Spain planning to approve a measure to name a square in honor of the British punk band The Clash’s Joe Strummer http://www.theworld.org/2013/01/spanish-square-to-be-named-in-honor-of-the-clashs-joe-strummer/ I was reminded of the battery of street name changes that Iranian cities underwent immediately after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The changing of names applied not only to streets and boulevards but to schools, colleges, universities and any building or organization that carried a name resonant of the former regime and all those it supported.

Besides serving as a practical guide to find one’s destination, street names and place names in general, create symbolic connections with the past, or recent past by commemorating and honoring the contributions of historical figures, military heroes, political leaders, inventors, industrialists, and athletes. According to the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky in Nation into State, “the United States has a long history of naming places, especially streets, after patriot heroes and other notables.”

I first came across the term “commemorative landscape” a term referring to “a wide range of material sites devoted to remembering the past,” in an essay entitled “Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina,” by Derek H. Alderman. We can safely agree that one of the most common of commemorative landscape types is the street name. In most cases, reasons to rename a street, monument or building are primarily politically motivated, reflecting the mood and sentiments of a new regime and its antipathy or respect for the past. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its satellites quickly set about a mission of de-Stalinization by renaming streets and building that once honored Stalin.

Though my recollections and understanding of Iran are memories frozen the moment I’d left the country in June 1978, I still remember those streets in Tehran named after American Presidents like Kennedy Square, Eisenhower Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue and British heads of state like Elizabeth Street and Winston Churchill Boulevard. Yet soon after the revolution these streets were renamed to honor martyrs of the Islamic Revolution and religious leaders. Kennedy Square is now Tohid Square, Eisenhower Avenue (named after the American President who helped the Shah topple Mossadeq) is Freedom Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue has been renamed Mofateh Avenue. Winston Churchill Boulevard, the site of the British Embassy in Tehran, was renamed Bobby Sands Street after the Irish Republican Army IRA member who went on a hunger strike and died in prison in northern Ireland in 1981. Apparently the British Embassy changed its entrance to another side of the building as they didn’t want the address to be Bobby Sands Street.

Tehran_Streets1

But not all American names have been censored in Iran. I read an LA Times article about Tehran’s decision to name a street in honor of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed while protesting against the demolition of Palestinians homes in the Gaza strip. The photo below is proof of the street sign, which also includes a brief profile of Rachel Corrie.

Tehran_Streets2
“Tehran street sign named after American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie”

Iranian colleges and universities weren’t exempt from the name changing fever that had gripped the country following the 1979 revolution. Autonomous colleges, like the College of Surveying, or College of Statistics and Computer Science, or College of Mass Communication were phased out, merged and consolidated into university complexes named after revolutionary martyrs and religious leaders. Universities too saw their names changed, especially those that were named after the Shah or his family. Aryamehr University, known as the MIT of Iran, is now Sharif University of Technology, named after a former student who was killed in 1975. Melli (National) University was renamed Shahid Beheshti University. Farah Pahlavi University was renamed after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter as Al Zahra University. And the list goes on.

I haven’t returned to Iran since I left in 1978 but what I hear from friends and relatives who travel back and forth is that the old street names seem to still exist in people’s memories and used colloquially. It’s not unusual for passengers hailing a taxi to give their destination with the current name but also add its former name as backup. “Take me to Freedom Avenue, formerly Eisenhower.”

There’s a strange sense of belonging that happens when one sees and recognizes a familiar street sign. The main street leading to our home on Lane 8, off of Pakistan Avenue in northern Tehran, was Abbas Abad Avenue. That’s how I remember our ethnically diverse neighborhood of small mom and pop shops, the bakery, dry cleaners, and a vast empty dirt lot soon to be a large housing development. Our next door neighbor was a French diplomat. Across the street lived an American family from Maine whose eldest son was my brother’s best friend and attended the Tehran American School. A few houses down were a Japanese family whose patriarch would take strolls up and down our quiet street in the afternoons in his kimono and wooden shoes.

Abbas Abad Avenue has since been renamed as Shahid Beheshti Avenue. I have no connection to this new street and all that it represents, but one thing that seems to have not changed is the international flavor of the district that has carried on. Today, Shahid Beheshti, aka Abbas Abad Avenue, is home to embassies and foreign firms. Do you have any stories to share of the street names in your neighborhoods?

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI
www.acei1.com

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Reflection, Renewal, and Red Underwear

December 20, 2012

2012 Calendar

At the close of this year—at least in the Gregorian calendar— which is celebrated in Europe and in the Americas, I find myself reflecting on what entering a New Year means to people around the world. As I am at the end of my first year living abroad, the differences and similarities are foremost on my mind. Of course moving from sunny Southern California to a rainy North Germany has its noticeable differences. And, as we all know, climate affects our general outlook on life as well as our daily routines, and life rituals. I can now personally attest to the fact that sunnier climes create sunnier dispositions, and a general sense of optimism, which is less understood, in colder more northern parts of the world.

But what really makes it all so interesting is the fact that both places have fairly large immigrant populations, which bring their own cultural ideals, ways of life, and ritual celebrations into daily life. Everyone finds the time, once a year to celebrate the coming new year, and ritualize the “out with the old in with the new” which is historically so important, vital in fact, to cultures all over the world.

New Year celebrations were originally based upon harvest celebrations, which were informed by cycles of the sun, the moon and the movement of stars. There is a difference though, between the “civil” calendars adopted by countries and the religious calendars, which are followed by people all over the world, though they often exist and are celebrated side by side.

The Julian Calendar (a reformation of the Roman Calendar by Julius Cesar in 46 BCE) was intended to approximate the Sun’s cycle as it returns to the same position each year, in other words from vernal equinox to vernal equinox. The Berber people of North Africa still use this calendar, as do most Eastern Orthodox Churches.

As the Julian calendar is slightly inaccurate (it gained about 3 days every four centuries,) it was later replaced by the Gregorian calendar, (The Christian Calendar) in 1582, in order to have a fixed date for the Spring Equinox, to which the celebration of Easter is attached. It is now the more internationally, widely accepted civil calendar. However, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia do not adopt the Gregorian calendar as their civil calendar. Many other countries use their own calendars alongside the Gregorian calendar, such as: Bangladesh, Burma, India, and Israel. Then there are those that use a modified version of the Gregorian calendar: Cambodia, Japan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan.

The date of the Islamic New Year is determined by the visibility of the hilal, or the waxing crescent moon following a new moon and may vary according to location. The day that marks the beginning of the New Year in the Islamic Calendar is called Hijra. While Muslims do not “celebrate” the beginning of the year, they do acknowledge the passing of time, by reflecting on how they have led their lives and on their own mortality. It is very similar to the Jewish ritual of their New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Nowruz (New Day), the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year’s Day is celebrated on March 21stthe Spring Equinox. It is celebrated as a theme of renewal, personal renewal and that of the home and friendships. It is also celebrated as a secular cultural festival in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, as well as the Kurdistan regions of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Syria, and Georgia.

What do all of these human constructs of time; religious or civil have in common then? Plenty. People all over the world celebrate and ritualize the passage of time. Whether their New Year falls in February, March, April, September or November, or December, most cultures see this as a time of introspection and reflection, a time of rebirth— an illumination of the soul. It is a chance to be cleansed of the old sins of the previous year and celebrate the potential of hope for a healthier, happier, and prosperous coming year.

Saint Sylvester

It was not until I moved to Germany that I first heard New Years referred to as Sylvester. I felt silly asking but I did, and found out that it is celebrated as Saint Sylvester’s Eve after Pope Sylvester I, who died in 335 and was reported to have miraculously cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy. Since that time of “miraculous healing” New Years was traditionally called St. Sylvester’s Eve in predominantly Catholic countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Poland. Even in Israel where so many European immigrants landed, Israelis celebrate the civic holiday of New Years as Sylvester Nacht—who knew?

Fire

Fire, fireworks, and light are ritually used for dispelling evil spirits and marking the time of transition from darkness to light as we move away from the Winter Solstice. Even countries whose religious beliefs are not connected to the Gregorian calendar, often celebrate the civil New Year with fireworks, such as: Morocco, China, India, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Those that celebrate their new years at other times also use the element of fire as a cleansing, to mark this passage and burn away the previous years’ evils and sins and scare off any spirits that may wish to take up residence in the coming year.

In Iran and those following the Persian ritual passed down since ancient Zoroastrian times, the Persian New Year celebrations begins with the festival called Chahar-Shanbeh Souri, which literally means “Eve of Wednesday” because it is always held on the last Tuesday of winter, just before the Vernal Equinox or first moment of spring. The fire ceremony symbolizes the changing of seasons and rebirth. The tradition includes people going into the streets and alleys to make bonfires, and jump over them while singing the traditional song Zardi-ye man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man. This literally translates to “My yellowness is yours, your redness is mine,” with the figurative message “My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me.” The fire is believed to burn out all the fear (yellowness) in their subconscious or their spirit, in preparation for New Year.

Diwali, Festival of Lights, is a five day Hindu festival which falls between Mid-October and mid-November. Small clay lamps are filled with oil and lit to signify the triumph of good over evil, and firecrackers are ignited to drive away evil spirits.

In Mongolia, the Lunar New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar. It is celebrated in February, and candles are used on altars to symbolize enlightenment.

In Mexico the tradition of making lists of all the bad or unfortunate events of the past years are written down and thrown into a fire before midnight to remove any negative energy from carrying over into the New Year.

In Ecuador men dress up as women to represent the “widow” of the year that has passed and then create life-size dummies which are burnt at midnight to “burn away” the years past misfortunes.

Tibetans also celebrate Losar in February, and traditionally go out into nature to perform rituals of gratitude by making offerings to the water spirits and smoke offerings to local spirits of the natural world.

Water

The Chinese New Year is known s Spring Festival and marks the end of winter, as families gather for a reunion dinner or Chúxi, which translates into “Remove Evening” or “Eve of the Passing Year.” Every family thoroughly cleans the house, sweeping away ill-fortune, cleansing it of evil omens from the previous year and making room for a new year filled with good luck.

Laotian people celebrate their Pbeemai April 13-15 by cleansing their homes and villages with perfumed water and flowers. The Burmese celebrate Thingyan April 13-16 with water as a means of washing away the sins of the pervious year. Water throwing and public dousing is rampant on the streets for days. In Nepal Fagu is celebrated on the full moon day in February by spraying colored water, and throwing water balloons at each other.

In Thailand the Songkran festival is celebrated from 13-15 April, by the throwing of water. However they can— jars, pots, water guns, are used as a means of washing all of the bad away, even spraying total strangers on the street. Of course we have to remember that in April temperatures can get up to 40C. In traditional celebrations, it is believed that good luck and prosperity for the coming year may be obtained by pouring water filled with fragrant herbs over the Buddhas on household shrines as well as at monasteries. This water is considered blessed and is then used to give good fortune to elders and family members by pouring it on their shoulders.

Red Underwear, Grapes, and Lentils

Believe it or not, another common link in New Year’s celebrations is the wearing of red underwear. Italians, Spanish, and Venezuelans all wear red underwear on New Years for good luck and love, though only the women in Mexico wear red underwear for finding love.

The Spanish, Mexicans, Chileans, Costa Ricans, Brazilians and Guatemalans all eat 12 grapes for each chime of the clock at midnight, making a wish for the New Year with each one.

Lentils seem to represent money and prosperity because of their round “coin” shape and are traditionally eaten by Brazilians, Hungarians, Chileans, and Italians. The Italians who seem to go lentil crazy— have lentils at dinner before midnight then take one spoonful of lentil stew per bell as the bells toll midnight.

So as 2012 comes to a close here in Germany, I will be celebrating Sylvestre and honoring the spirit of the transition from darkness into light, and wishing for a global time of renewal, hope and joy.

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jwndesign@me.com

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Comments to our blog “Travel: The Bridge to Friendship.”

November 05, 2012

Gratitude - This Dawn #8

We received a few comments on our Facebook page about our recent blog “Travel: The Bridge to Friendship” (11/01/12) which we’d like to share with you. Please feel free to comment on our blog page and share our posts. Thank you.

“Let me first start by saying how much I love your blogs Jasmin. This one is so exotic and fabulous!! And I love that you had your ears pierced by a Farsi-speaking English nurse on safari in Africa. I grew up in Israel my family is Romanian, but was exposed to so many fascinating other cultures, Like: Bulgarian, Moroccan, Turkish ,Farsi, Yemen, Arab Polish and so on and so on. Tried so many different foods and music, movies. I love learning about other cultures. Can you imagine someone’s world that is not willing to be exposed to so many amazing new things, and only their culture matters? I can’t! We all are so different, but like you said, so much alike. Love your stories about traveling and love, love, love this blog!”
~Zissy Rosen (Los Angeles, CA)

“I love your blog. I call myself a global nomad.”
~Patricia Mlatac (Cape Town, S. Africa)

“Lovely article. I now wish I’d sent my boys to boarding schools also. I really didn’t appreciate the experience at the time, but I do now. One hears so many horror stories from kids who had bad experiences with authority figures during childhood that one can become unduly wary. Keep up the good work.”
~Jabin Jalil

“I think travel does broaden the horizens (sic.) but I would never send my children to boarding school – I think children should be with their families and travel with them until they are older and can travel alone. I liked my time at CTS but as the years pass it is easy to remember the nice things and forget the homesickness and being away from family and friends – there were many unhappy girls there just desparate (sic.) to go home – just saying!”
~Elaine Erskine

“Nice blog post – enjoyed reading it. Funny the stories we take for granted as parts of our childhood are actually quite exotic and interesting! Hey, I love soaptopia too!’
~Bianca Bagatourian (Los Angeles, CA)

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DREAMS OF A COMMON LANGUAGE

May 31th 2012

universal thank you note

The West African women are warm and welcoming. I am here to observe their conversational English group, which I will be helping to lead a few weeks from now in July and August, as a literacy volunteer tutor. Their group has been meeting at the library for six months. I am not the only newcomer today. A young woman from Togo has also come, accompanied by her husband. One of the instructors invites her husband to stay for as long as he likes, but maybe the prospect of being in a room with eight women is too much; he flees after a few minutes.
The first timer, Lucie, and I are both short, though at five feet she is shorter than me. Her hair is closely cropped; she says that in Togo she wore it long, very long, but cut it when she came here because she wanted to feel freer. A pang of envy or admiration shoots through me, for her bravery in starting a new life, her openness in front of strangers. Is the cutting of her hair symbolic of the rupture of her ties to her first country? She and I smile at each other because that is what newcomers do when they want to feel at home. A gift given, a gift received, it costs nothing and means so much.

Lucie tells the group her husband works in a nursery. It takes us a few minutes to understand he is not a landscaper nor a childcare worker but a nurse. I am happy to hear Lucie’s husband has a job; there has been a shortage of nurses in the U.S. for a long time and his prospects sound promising. Lucie says she prepares food for people. We realize she is talking about catering and want to know more about her business: did she do this in Togo? Who are her new clients? But this is her first day in the group and it feels rude to keep questioning her. She says she loves to cook and clearly she takes pride in her work. We go around the table introducing ourselves. There are two instructors, myself, and five students. All five are from French-speaking countries: three from Togo, one from Ivory Coast, one from Burkina Faso. Two of the women have brought baby girls with them; Justine has brought her daughter, Marie, and Bella has brought Grace, a 10-month-old she babysits. Justine nurses her daughter when she fusses and puts her back in the carriage she has parked behind her chair. Grace sits on Bella’s lap and when she gets restless, Bella places her in a colorful blanket and wraps it around her waist so that Grace rides on Bella’s back. The baby immediately falls asleep. Bella promises to show the women next week how the wrapping is done, and I am sorry I will not be there to learn.

The conversation turns to last weekend’s activities and then to food. The woman from Ivory Coast says she is planning to go home and make a dish with cornmeal. The other West African women know this dish and tell those who don’t that it’s something like polenta. One of the instructors says she plans to make soup this afternoon and asks me if I like to cook. “No,” I say. “I hate it.” Immediately I regret this. The women look at me as I’d just admitted to cheating on my taxes. I hope I have not insulted them. The challenge of feeding a family in a strange country is something they take seriously. I want to tell them my mother hated to cook and that I grew up on diner food and Stouffer’s tv dinners. But the talk has moved on to the pros and cons of shopping at large supermarkets versus neighborhood grocery stores. I make a mental note that when I return in a few weeks, I will ask the women more about what they like to cook and which ingredients are hard to find. Perhaps with the library’s permission we can have a potluck lunch and I’ll make macaroni and cheese from scratch.

Two hours have passed and the meeting is over. The women say their goodbyes in French, and an instructor calls out, “English, ladies. Please!” But it’s too late, the pull of the mother tongue is so strong. I turn to Lucie and ask if she plans to come back. “Of course she’s coming back!” the other instructor exclaims.

I’ve misspoken again. What I meant to say was, “I’ll be coming back, and when I do, I hope I see you.” But perhaps Lucie understands, because as she leaves she gives me one of her radiant smiles.

Nancy Gerber

Nancy Gerber received her doctorate in English from Rutgers and taught Women’s Studies and English at Rutgers in Newark for eight years.
She is the author of Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving.

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Useless Literary Terms Come Alive

May 17 2012

Synedoche: figure of speech wherein part represents whole, e.g. “crown” stands for “king” or “queen”.

Objective Correlative: T.S. Eliot’s literary device, akin to metaphor, where an object or thing represents an emotion or feeling.

How do I know such obscure things? Rather than following my dad’s advice to pursue a more practical career as a doctor or lawyer, I studied literature, finally taking an M.A. at UCLA. Later I was in the Ph.d program, but when confronted by an obscure question about a lesser-known English poet named Charles Lamb in the part one written exams, I walked out of that UCLA classroom room and away from the Ph.d program. I left three months later for Paris with $400 in my pocket, a big smile, and no real plans. I had gone to school in Paris a few years before so the City of Light was no stranger.

When I returned to the States 2 years later, it was tough getting a decent teaching job, even though I had three teaching credentials and plenty of teaching experience. So I took an even more risky career detour into music. I would have been a terrible lawyer and could have never gone to med school to cut up a cadaver anyway.

But going back to seldom-used literary terms, occasionally they crop up in real-life situations. For synedoche (sin-ek-dough-kee), I pulled into the SMC parking lot last Sunday to do my show. I beheld the 1964 Chrysler New Yorker sedan, blue-green and in glorious original condition. It belongs to Jason Groman, who runs logistics for KCRW, and also handles the KCRW mail and fulfillment departments, both crucial links between KCRW and its members. The Chrysler harkens back to the era of great Amercian cars and embodies the taste and sensibility of its proud owner, who loves classic things, whether they be Paper Mate pens, Lawry’s Prime Rib, classic Magnavox hi fi consoles, and Sinatra ballads on the original vinyl. It made me happy to see Jason’s car and to know I would also soon be seeing him. Everybody at KCRW loves Jason Groman. He’s a great guy and a unique human being. The Chrysler New Yorker truly reflects him.

As for Eliot’s objective correlative: I used to think that Sinatra’s Only the Lonely was his best album of torch songs. Then I heard In The Wee Small Hours, and that trumped Only the Lonely. Then I discovered No One Cares, and realized that this was numero uno. On the cover of No One Cares, we see a photo of Sinatra in a club at the bar, alone, down and depressed, nursing a glass of whisky, smoking cigarettes while others gaily dance and romance in the background.

Then you look at some of the song titles: ”A Cottage for Sale” is about a failed marriage. ”Stormy Weather”, captures his tempestuous marriage and divorce from Ava Gardner. These two song titles capture the essence of the album. T.S. Eliot’s term, originally meant for aspiring poets, actually comes up a lot in music. These are just two examples.

So even though obscure literary terms do not have much use in daily life, occasionally they spring back to enliven the little things that make life more interesting. And you don’t need a Ph.D to appreciate them.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program on radio for KCRW Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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The Music of Language

January 5, 2012
by Jackie Parker

Manuscript

I had been asked to teach a writing workshop for a group of women and their teenage daughters who lived within blocks of each other in Alhambra California, a city of 80,000 eight miles from downtown Los Angeles. Alhambra is the birthplace of the painter Norman Rockwell whose scenes of everyday American life graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for forty years. Many of these women were first generation Americans: Mexican, Filipino, Korean, who, by any standards had achieved a great deal. One had begun selling hotdogs at Dodger games. She now owned several properties, another was a nursing supervisor in a large hospital, another a social worker with a Master’s Degree in family counseling. They had worked and studied their way to impressive positions, bought homes, raised families, lived in a manner far exceeding their parents’ dreams for them.

But it seemed that they were having trouble getting along with their teenage daughters, and one of the women, who was enrolled in a workshop of mine, thought that by writing together they would find a way to create meaningful connections and a basis for understanding each other as women. The daughters, who had known each other since they were toddlers, had agreed to give it a try.

As I sat down in the comfortable living room and looked around at the fourteen of them—I was apprehensive and yet excited to see what would happen in the next two hours. The truth was I had no idea what I was going to ask them to write about, and no idea whether this group would end in disaster or triumph. I rarely prepare a topic before meeting a group, feeling out the needs of the people in the room by listening to what they write in the first exercise: a five minute free-writing that elicits results I still don’t understand after fifteen years of doing this work. People open up to aspects of themselves that are moving and deep and true, as if those truths are standing behind a door waiting to be invited into the room. But would teen-age girls risk writing their truths with their mothers right there? Would their mothers risk revealing themselves to their girls?

I had asked everyone to leave their phones and connective devices in another room and one of the girls said she felt really strange. Even stranger when we began simply by sitting in quiet together, breathing in silence for five minutes. A few of the girls laughed nervously. Some of them squirmed. I held the quiet like a cloak, spreading it out over the fidgets and giggles as they settled in. Sometimes just five minutes of silence in a room can shift moods and connect us to the inner life that we hunger for and often fear, but that we must work consciously to give to ourselves these days because so much that is rich waits for us there.

Just before the writing began one of the women asked if she could write in her native language. “Of course,” I said, off handedly. “Write in whatever language feels right for you.” She was the first person to read that day. “I know you won’t understand what I’m saying but I had to write this.” she began.

I had never heard Filipino spoken at such length. And no one but her daughter could follow the story. And yet, as she read, haltingly at first, and then musically, her words rising into a rhythm and meaning we could sense but not quite know, something happened to us all. I looked around the room and there were tears in the eyes of many of the women and girls. Simply hearing the language had moved us. Was it possible that we had gleaned their meaning as well? “Could you read it again?” everyone urged once she had finished. How beautiful was her first language. It was a privilege to listen, we all agreed. A privilege just to hear. Then she translated her story to us. “It’s a letter to my mother,” she said. “I’m apologizing to her. She had wanted me to become a doctor, but I failed. I failed her. All I was able to do was become a nurse. I have never spoken these words to anyone. I don’t even think I have ever really let myself feel them.”

Her daughter got up from her chair and embraced her. The tissues were passed around the room. We heard many deep and wise stories that day, in Spanish and Korean, in English, as well. It was a day of profound connection on many levels, far exceeding my goals for the group. It was a day that changed my teaching. Now wherever I go I remind people that they may write in any language they choose. And roomfuls of people are graced with the music of languages they might never have heard. And if not the language, then the stories that arise from the experiences that are held in the quintessential American experience: our immigrant selves. There are 92 languages spoken in the City of Los Angeles. One day, I want to have heard stories in them all.

Jackie Parker is a writer and teacher who conducts workshops nationwide.
She can be reached at jackie@jackie-parker.com

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